Breaking Down Plastic: The material, the problem, the solutions

Look around you and you’ll struggle to find products that aren’t made with plastic. Since the 1950s, the malleable material has completely reshaped how we live and consume, offering convenience and possibility at levels once out of reach for most people.

Now, sixty years on, we’re learning that plastic has a downside: waste, and lots of it.

Plastic has not only made its way into every aspect of our homes and workplaces, but also our ecosystems. From tons of packaging and micro-plastics floating in the oceans to petrochemicals leaching into the environment from landfills, plastic waste is one of the biggest challenges facing the sustainability of our world.

The following overview is designed for anyone who knows that plastic waste is a serious problem, but who wants to know more. What are the most common types of plastic manufacturers use? Why has the recycling rate for plastic actually gone down in the U.S. in recent years? This bare-bones breakdown answers these questions and others in order to give you a foundation for diving deeper into the issues, challenges, and possibilities surrounding plastic and sustainability.

United States

8.4%

Amount of plastic waste that is recycled in the U.S.¹

30M

Tonnage of plastic that is thrown away in the U.S. each year.²

234

Average number of pounds of plastic waste that the average American generates annually.³

99%

Percentage of plastics in use made from non-renewable sources like oil, natural gas, and coal.⁴

See our sources.

The amount of plastic that is recycled in the U.S. is falling—it dropped by nearly 1% from 2016 to 2017. A study from the Plastic Pollution Coalition projected that the rate for 2018 could be as low as 4.4%, dropping to 2.9% for 2019. This comes as Americans consume more products that are made of plastic or are packaged in plastic. With only 4% of the world’s population, the U.S. is responsible for generating 12% of all municipal solid waste (MSW), 13% of which is made up of plastics.

Globally

8.8M

Tonnage of plastic that go into oceans each year.⁵

331M

Tonnage of plastic that is thrown away globally.⁴

68K

The number of shipping containers worth of plastic waste that were exported from the U.S. to other countries in 2018.⁶

50%

How much of the world’s plastic waste intended for recycling was traded internationally.⁷

See our sources.

Many are now calling plastic waste a global crisis. In 2018 alone, 68,000 shipping containers of plastic collected in the U.S. to be recycled were exported to developing countries that have been reported to mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste. The transport of plastic waste across oceans means a lot of it ends up in the water: Plastic waste outweighs zooplankton—a major food source for many marine animals—by 36-to-1. Virgin plastic resins are made by chemically processing fossil fuels—the United Nations has predicted that plastic production could account for 20% of the oil industry by 2050.

What is plastic?

We think of plastic as a single material, but it’s not. It’s a collection of very different materials that share a common property: They are plastic, an adjective that means “capable of being molded or modeled” and “capable of adapting to varying conditions,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The pliable, formable quality of plastics opened—and continues to open—entirely new design and manufacturing possibilities for industry.

Plastic is often associated with the rise of mass consumption within the industrially developed world from the mid-twentieth century onwards. But it is much older than that. The first plastic material was developed by the Belgian-born American chemist Leo Baekeland with the invention of Bakelite. It was the first fully synthetic, plastic material. Durable, heat-resistant, and a good conductor for electricity, it quickly found uses in a rapidly electrifying United States. Bakelite was also prized because it looked and felt like ivory, an expensive commodity that few were able to enjoy.

Get to know your plastics.

The graph below summarizes the most common polymer materials that are used today to make both durable (long-lasting) and nondurable (disposable) goods.

The most common use of plastic? Packaging.

Today, one of the greatest sources of plastic waste comes from food-related packaging. In most developed countries, it makes up as much as a third of the non-industrial waste stream.

Data source: McKinsey

Pressing challenges

Mitigating the environmental impacts of plastic waste means addressing key challenges. Some of the most prevalent of those are described below.

The U.S. recycling rate is decreasing.

Most municipalities across the U.S. had introduced a plastic-recycling program by the early 2000s. Data show a boom in recycling rates until 2010, when they more or less flatten out year-to-year even as the amount of plastic that was used and disposed of grew steadily. In 2017, Americans threw away more plastic than they did in 2016—an additional 500,000 tons. Yet the amount of plastic that was recycled dropped, putting an extra 280,000 tons to the already staggering 26,030,000 tons that went into landfills the previous year.

Possible reasons for the decline in the volume of plastic that is getting recycled include the following:

#1 Consumer confusion at the curbside

A 2019 McKinsey & Company study found that consumers with access to curbside recycling only put 40% of recyclable plastic out for collection. The rest goes to landfills where it becomes contaminated with other materials and is no longer recyclable. The study learned that consumers cite two sources of confusion: Knowing which plastics are recyclable and which are not, and the incredible variation of recycling methods in place in even a single town or city.

#2 Single-stream recycling

Residential recycling programs that require consumers to sort recyclables can be expensive for municipalities to manage. This is why so many switched to a “single-stream” system during the 2000s. Not only is it cheaper to collect, it makes recycling easier for residents because all recyclables—plastic, glass, paper, and metal—are put into the same bin.

By 2014, 80% of Americans lived in an area where a single-stream system was in place, a 51% increase from 2005. The comingling of unlike materials makes it hard for materials recovery facilities (MRFs) to completely recycle any one of them. A 2016 report by the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute (NYSP2I), “Reducing Contamination in Recycled Glass from Single Stream Collection,” found that this practice cut the amount of glass that gets recycled by 50%. Plastics become contaminated in this environment, too. Collection trucks smash all the materials together. Shards of glass are compacted into plastic and paper. Residues from food, like grease, also end up in the mix. The result of this is known as “dirty” recyclables.

#3 Innovation of plastic materials outpacing recycling technology

Approximately 30 percent of plastic packaging currently in use can’t be processed by most MRFs in the U.S.3 The processing technology in place at these facilities lags behind the fast-paced development of new uses of plastic for packaging that evolve to sustain market competitiveness. Some companies are working to close this gap through the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. The Max-AI® sorting machine from Bulk Handling Systems is one such example.

China no longer buys “dirty” plastic from the U.S.

Over the last 25 years, dirty recyclable plastic—the surplus that the U.S. couldn’t recycle—didn’t worry recycling processors. That’s because all of it went into a global waste industry worth $250 billion that was fueled almost entirely by purchasing from China.

Chinese companies imported dirty plastic as a feedstock for its burgeoning manufacturing industry. But that ended in January 2018 when China announced that it would no longer accept recycled plastic scrap that is not 99.5% pure. Bales and bales of plastic trash were left on the shores of the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and elsewhere as waste haulers looked for a new buyer. Today, about half of the volume that used to go to China remains unsold, according to the website fivethirtyeight.com. That means it remains stockpiled, often outdoors, where it can leach into surrounding ecosystems.

Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, told National Geographic that China’s decision “exposes the myth that the United States is capable of dealing with its own plastics problem.”

At a glance: The global trade of plastic waste

70%

Percentage of the world’s total plastic waste that have gone to China and Hong Kong since 1997.

$400

Average cost of sending a shipping container across the Pacific full of plastic waste.

$3.8K

Average cost of sending a shipping container across the U.S. to plastic-processing plants.

1,985%

Increase in the amount of plastic waste sent to Thailand in 2018 over the previous year, equaling 101 tons.⁷

See our sources.

Looking beyond recycling

Recycling has long been the go-to for managing plastic waste. But are there other methods?

Our predominant economic model follows a linear pattern: Raw materials are extracted, products are made, then they are used and thrown away. Plastic pollution is just one side effect of our linear economy, but it is a critical one. While recycling has helped to curb the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill, many researchers, policymakers, and businesses believe a lasting solution to the plastics problem means moving away from a linear economy and creating a circular one.

A circular economy is one that reflects the closed-loop processes we see in a healthy ecosystem. It is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

The New Plastics Economy

In 2016, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation spearheaded the New Plastics Economy initiative. A collaboration between not-for-profits, major corporations, academic researchers, and policymakers, the New Plastics Economy is a rallying cry for businesses and governments to rethink and redesign the future of plastics.

Decoupling plastic from environmental degradation

The New Plastics Economy seeks to create a circular economy for plastics. It envisions a world where all plastic use is decoupled from the consumption of finite resources. All plastic packaging will be reused, recycled, or composted. The vast global store of plastic waste will be put to use and removed from our environment while the embodied value already spent in its production is brought back into the economy. It’s a vision that calls for forward-thinking in product design and manufacturing to reduce or eliminate the need for single-use plastic packaging.

A world-wide effort

The initiative led to the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment in 2018, a collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme. The commitment unites businesses, governments, and other organizations behind a common vision and targets to address plastic waste and pollution at its source. Signatories include companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally, as well as governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), universities, industry associations, investors, and other organizations.

The plastics problem is an opportunity.

There is no starker reminder of the impact that our throw-away culture has had on our planet than the ubiquitous presence of plastic in our oceans, forests, and neighborhoods. But it’s worth remembering that plastic remains an incredibly useful, dynamic material. Used intelligently, plastic packaging can dramatically extend the life of food, keeping methane-emitting food waste out of landfills and allowing producers to sell to more people over a longer period of time. Plastic products also vastly improve healthcare, making otherwise expensive equipment like ventilators more widely available while making it easier to keep hospitals contaminant-free. By building circularity within the plastic industry, we can harness the power of plastic while decoupling it from fossil-fuel extraction and end-of-life landfilling.

Plastic waste isn’t only an environmental problem, it’s a loss for businesses. Every component or product made of plastic that gets tossed into a landfill represents an amount of spent energy and labor. Bringing wasted polymers back into the economy extends the life of all the extracted resources that went into them originally, which means less need for fresh extraction of more raw materials. There is immense opportunity for innovative businesses that understand this circular economy perspective and can strategize, design, and manufacture accordingly.

The road ahead when it comes to plastic can seem bleak, but there is hope. And it’s growing.

Learning more and taking action

Plastic waste is a big problem, but many are taking action to help solve it. Below are leading organizations, initiatives, and other partnerships that are excellent resources for learning more and finding ways to join the fight.

  • The Recycling Partnership
    The Recycling Partnership develops definitions of recycling for organizations trying to create goals, track progress, or perform evaluations. It puts private dollars to work in communities and publishes recycling statistics. It is funded by major consumer brands. 
     
  • American Chemical Council
    The American Chemistry Council (ACC) represents a diverse set of companies engaged in the business of chemistry. It functions as a membership organization and works to solve some of the biggest challenges facing the nation and world. They are a $553-billion enterprise with a mission to deliver value to its members through political advocacy, communications, and scientific research. They provide studies, fact sheets, reports, risk assessments, and more.
     
  • The Closed Loop Fund
    Closed Loop Partners is a New York-based investment firm that provides equity and project finance to scale-up products, services, and infrastructure at the forefront of the development of the circular economy. Major companies contribute to the fund, including Amazon, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks. The firm provides funding to communities to become sustainable and helps to create technology accelerators.
     
  • Waste Dive
    Waste Dive is a trusted in-depth journalism source that provides news and analysis for waste and recycling executives. They cover topics like landfilling, collections and transfer, regulation, organics, waste-to-energy, zero waste, policy, and more. Waste Dive is a leading publication operated by Industry Dive and tracks developments within the recyclables and plastics landscapes.
     
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Recycling Council
    The EPA’s recycling council is a data aggregator established in 2020. It is responsible for providing minutes and reports for the EPA.
     
  • Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI)
    ISRI is an industrial association focusing on education, political advocacy, and public awareness of the role recycling plays in the U.S. economy and global trade. ISRI advocates for safety and responsibility in many different areas of the scrap recycling industry, such as metals theft, electronics recycling, occupational safety, and regulatory compliance of its members. The organization also publishes periodic research on the recycling industry.
     
  • Association of Plastics Recyclers
    The Association of Plastic Recyclers is a national trade association representing companies who acquire, reprocess, and sell the output of more than 90% of the post-consumer plastic-processing capacity in North America. Its membership includes independent recycling companies of all sizes, processing numerous plastic resins. It strongly advocates the recycling of all post-consumer plastic packaging.
     
  • The Green Blue Institute
    Green Blue is an environmental nonprofit dedicated to the sustainable use of materials in society. They encourage innovation and best practices to promote the creation of a more sustainable materials economy.
     
  • The Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS)
    A member-based organization that supports the entire plastics supply chain and aims to help the industry become more globally competitive by advancing sustainability and promoting plastics manufacturing as a viable career option. It was founded in 1937.
     
  • National Waste and Recycling Association (NWRA)
    NWRA provides leadership, advocacy, research, education, and safety expertise to promote the waste and recycling industry. With nearly 700 members, NWRA is a mix of publicly-traded and privately-owned local, regional, and Fortune-500 national and international companies. It represents about 70% of the private-sector waste and recycling market.
     
  • The Reducing EMbodied-Energy And Decreasing Emissions (REMADE) Institute
    REMADE is a research consortium that aims to mature the state of promising technologies that cost-effectively extract value from end-of-life products via recycling, remanufacturing, and reuse. Its formation was spearheaded by Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), building on the university’s long-standing commitment to solving industry-driven manufacturing and workforce development problems within the recycling and remanufacturing sectors. Through its funding of novel industry-led projects, REMADE’s goal is to see a 50% improvement in the U.S.’s overall energy efficiency by 2027.

 

Statistic Sources

  1. Plastics: Material-Specific Data | US EPA. (2017). US EPA. Retrieved from https://www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/plastics-material-specific-data
  2. The Facts — Plastic Pollution Coalition. (2020). Plastic Pollution Coalition. Retrieved from https://www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/the-facts
  3. Holden, E. (2019). US produces far more waste and recycles far less of it than other developed countries. the Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jul/02/us-plastic-waste-recycling
  4. Our planet is drowning in plastic pollution. This World Environment Day, it’s time for a change. (2020). Unenvironment.org. Retrieved from https://www.unenvironment.org/interactive/beat-plastic-pollution/
  5. Plastics in the Ocean - Ocean Conservancy. (2020). Ocean Conservancy. Retrieved from https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/plastics-in-the-ocean/https://oceanconservancy.org/trash-free-seas/plastics-in-the-ocean/
  6. McCormick, E., Fullerton, J., Gee, A., Simmonds, C., Murray, B., & Fonbuena, C. et al. (2019). Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America's dirty secret. the Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/17/recycled-plastic-america-global-crisis
  7. China's ban on trash imports shifts waste crisis to Southeast Asia. (2018). Nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/11/china-ban-plastic-trash-imports-shifts-waste-crisis-southeast-asia-malaysia/#close

 

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About the author

Golisano Institute for Sustainability (GIS) is a global leader in sustainability education and research. Drawing upon the skills of more than 100 full-time engineers, technicians, research faculty, and sponsored students, it operates six dynamic research centers and over 84,000 square feet of industrial infrastructure for sustainability modeling, testing, and prototyping. Graduate-level degree programs are also offered that convey the institute's knowledge to the next generation of industry professionals.

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